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My Quest for a Good Malasada in Brazil

May 13, 2012 - Ray Tsuchiyama

Among all the places that I have visited, one big country stands out – Brazil – as a country that I hope to visit again in the future. With 200 million citizens, this largest country of Latin America with a booming economy and strong currency (and investors flocking to Miami and New York City) is a vast melting pot, like the U.S., with an indigenous population, a minority of African descent, and immigrants from throughout Europe, including Germany and Italy, and – as I will delve deeper later – surprisingly two million Brazilians of Japanese descent.

The beautiful beach resort of Rio de Janeiro is perhaps the best-known city in Brazil (one crucial planning decision was to ban all hotel buildings makai of the main beach-front boulevard: imagine if there were no hotels next to beach on Waikiki, less income-producing properties, yes, but what a fantastic ocean view). Second in the global mind would be the mega-urban sprawl of São Paulo, with 12 million inhabitants in the inner city, and over 20 million in the larger urban area, just behind New York City in the Americas. But there are many more Brazilian cities, like Curitiba, a major agricultural center or Manaus, the largest city in the northern Amazon region with two million citizens, or Florianopolis, a southern resort city.

There is a rule of thumb that the more south you travel, the more “European” the society looks. For example, when I was at a reception in Florianopolis, in Santa Catalina State, the local Governor and Vice-Governor looked like they flew in the night before from Bavaria – both very Germanic-looking. It is no surprise that the famous willowy model Gisele Bundchen hails from this southern Brazilian region.

To a person who grew up in Hawai’i, the ethnic make-up of Brazilian society in many ways evokes multi-ethnic Hawai’i. In business meetings I met a da Silva (the previous Brazilian President’s last name), Maldanaldo, de Lima, and other names of classmates and friends from Kalihi-Palama. Additionally, there would be a Tanaka, Suzuki, and Sato (with first names like Ronaldo, Jorge, and Lisa).*

The most curious aspect of walking around São Paulo, where many Brazilians of Japanese descent live and work, was that I was constantly mistaken for a local “paulistano” (a São Paulo native). I do not speak Portuguese, except for a few words and phrases, and Brazilians were surprised, even perturbed that I was not responding to their greetings or questions to find a local building.

Like the “Chinatown” in Honolulu, a district in São Paulo named “Liberdade” is the Japanese section, complete with a Japanese immigration museum. There are red-painted “torii” or gates and paper lanterns along streets at the entrance of the district. When I entered small souvenir shops or markets, I could converse easily in Japanese** with the sales staff. I was startled at the sight of a Liberdade shop in a country with a rich Roman Catholic tradition specializing in butsudan or Buddhist altars, and I could buy incense and jyuzu or Buddhist rosary-type beads. Sushi is also part of contemporary Brazilian cuisine (I could order excellent sushi delivered to my São Paulo hotel).

Japanese immigration to Brazil began at the turn of the century when my grandparents arrived on Maui, and continued after World War II, even into the 1960s (by the late 1960s the Japanese post-War economic revival would soon halt Japanese immigrants, but there were tens of thousands immigrating to Brazil annually as late as 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics). Most are from the regions where Nikkei originated in North America: the southern prefectures of Hiroshima, Yamaguchi, Fukuoka, Kumamoto, and Okinawa (similarly, an Italian-American from Brooklyn would meet cousins from Palermo, Sicily in Bella Vista, São Paulo ‘s Italian district – I would never forget an Italian “cantina” or restaurant proprietor who called out to me to drink wine at 2 PM).

Although only two million Brazilians of Japanese descent exist in a huge multi-ethnic population of 200 million (exactly one percent), there are Japanese-Brazilians in many prominent roles in Brazilian society, like faculty at leading Brazilian universities, numerous politicians, and the head of the Brazilian Air Force is named Juniti Saito (a Southern Hemisphere analog to former U.S. Army Chief of Staff retired Lieutenant General Eric Shinseki, from Kauai, now Secretary of Veterans Affairs).

In sports, Sergio Echigo was a soccer star who played in the São Paulo league team Corinthians Paulista in the early 1960s (and this is no small achievement, as you compete against players like Pele); Marcus Tulio Tanaka is a soccer star in Japan; and Hugo Hoyama is a world-class table tennis champion. (São Paulo state also has a thriving baseball league, a well-kept secret in midst of the national obsession with soccer.)

One famous Japanese-Brazilian is the attractive Sabrina Sato (actually she is Lebanese-Swiss on her father’s side, but retains her mother’s name) from a small city in the agricultural north of São Paulo state. In Brazilian society/culture, Sato (who most likely speaks only a few words of Japanese -- see side Blog Photo) has parlayed her “country” “Caipira” accent with Italian linguistic influence (maybe an analog of the Southern American singer Dolly Parton) – and belittling her intellectual prowess -- into comedy routines, and has become a major Brazilian television comedienne and reporter. Come to think about it, after Pat Morita, there aren’t any Japanese-American comics.***

But I digress -- back to the beautiful sweet malasada: after eating in a São Paulo restaurant what seemed to be the ancestor of Zippy’s Portuguese bean soup (named "feijoada", a national dish in Brazil and many other places with Portuguese colonial influence, including Mozambique and even Goa, in India) and what seemed to be a far-away cousin of favorite Redondo's Portuguese sausage (Brazilians call it "linguiça" and find it weird that it is featured in breakfast buffets or McDonalds in Hawai’i) – came my hunt for the elusive malasada (from the Portuguese word "mal-assada" or "light-roasted"). When I mentioned this delightful dessert or snack or health-reviver to my Brazilian colleagues, they frowned and shook their heads: they had never heard of a malasada. I was a bit frustrated, as I thought that anybody named Maldanaldo or Silva would be eating malasadas all day long (I would, too). (Later I would understand that this Hawaiian dessert originally evolved from the Madeira islands, not mainland Portugal.)

Through my constant nagging about malasadas I must have moved one of my colleagues, who arranged a surprise for me at a local Portuguese restaurant. At the dinner’s end out came an entire plate of malasadas – but it was kind of hard and resembled more a fried donut than a soft malasada. I ate a piece, and alas, it was not a malasada. My disappointment must have shown in my face, as my colleague quietly put the rest of the malasadas into a box to take home and never mentioned the incident to me again. Later, I thought how ungrateful I must have been to him (and the manager of the Portuguese restaurant), and I should have thanked him profusely for his nice gesture.

Thus ended my quest for the malasada in Brazil – and I realized there is no place like home.

*My bright Brazilian telecoms-expert colleague that I hired was the son of a Hungarian Jewish refugee (the exodus after the failed 1956 Hungarian Revolt) and a “Brazilian” (this usually means of mixed ethnicity, Portuguese/Spanish/probably some African) mother. Interestingly, my colleague was a linguist who understood some Hungarian, spoke native Portuguese, excellent Spanish, good English, little Italian and German, plus a grounding in Hebrew. He attended Hebrew School as a child, as well as going to an evangelical Christian church (and knew about “Candomblé”, a Brazilian folk religion with Yoruba/African influence). This religious inclusiveness also reminded me of Hawai’i, as many people celebrate Christmas at a Christian church, go to a Shinto Shrine during New Year’s, and join an “oli” chant to the Hawaiian Akua – and do not feel any contradiction. He called chopsticks “hashi” correctly in Japanese and said that all Brazilians knew the term, as well as other Japanese words used in everyday conversation. He also indulged in a “caipirinha”, a Brazilian signature drink with lots of mashed-up fruits and juice, using Japanese sake (yes, there is Japanese sake made in Brazil) instead of the local Brazilian liquor made from sugar cane juice called “cachaça”.

**The São Paulo Shimbun, a Japanese language newspaper, is still published and widely-read in Brazil. Having spoken to first-, second-, third-, and fourth-generation Brazilians of Japanese descent, I found that a higher percentage in Brazil spoke better Japanese than many Nikkei in Hawai’i or in West Coast cities like Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. One reason is that in many smaller towns in the agricultural parts of São Paulo state has a higher percentage of Nikkei, and the rural schools retained more Japanese language instruction compared to urban, multi-ethnic São Paulo. (One Japanese-Brazilian friend said that almost all his teachers in a rural agricultural community were Japanese-Brazilians.)

However, in speaking to Brazilians, I detected some Japanese words or phrases that were anachronistic or out-dated or politically-incorrect today, and I felt I was speaking to a pre-World War II Japanese (although the Liberdade shop salesman was younger than me). Yet this is not that unusual, as I have heard early 20th century Hiroshima dialect Japanese male-gender speech from a 16 year-old Hilo girl, who learned her Japanese from her great-grandfather. There are many linguistic analogies globally: South Koreans can detect a North Korean speaker via accent and lack of foreign “loan words”; Swedes detect anachronisms in the speech of Swedish-speaking Finnish minority; Hungarians are startled by the Hungarian spoken in Hungarian-speaking enclaves in Romania and Ukraine; and of course, French tourists are bemused by the French utterances in New Orleans.

***One famous Japanese-American comedian was the late Jack Soo (whose real name was Goro Suzuki) who starred in the television detective sitcom “Barney Miller”. He began as an entertainer at the Topaz (Utah) relocation camp and later developed into a top television dramatic actor, and stuck with the non-Japanese stage name that he adopted during the War.


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